Automated Frustration

In this era of automated everything, where businesses large and small are doing their best to reduce costs, one aspect of most businesses has become the automated telephone system. Such systems come in two varieties. Those that aren’t excessively frustrating and those that are.

Among the systems that are most frustrating are those with a long menu and no option for anything besides specific topics that aren’t what you’re calling about. So after nine options, none of which relate to the subject of your call, you have to go through the menu and guess which option is the closest to what you’re calling about. That gets followed with a second menu that often turns out to have nothing to do with the subject you’re calling about. If you’re fortunate, you may find what you called about.

Then there’s the system that actually asks you the subject of your call. Except… it often doesn’t recognize the words you’re using because it’s only programmed to “accept” certain words.

The best systems, to my mind, are like the one used by my local pharmacy. If you know your prescription number and your phone number, you can refill the prescription automatically. If you don’t, you can switch directly to a pharmacy technician. If it’s after hours you can leave your name and number and describe your problem, and someone will call you back during working hours – and they do.

On the other hand, there’s the current IRS system, where there’s been no way to get an answer to your questions either online or by telephone for two months, and there’s no way to reach a live person. My inquiry wasn’t vital. After three months, I just wanted to know when I might get my refund. Even though I filed electronically, and received a confirmation, the automated system couldn’t even find my return. I’ll certainly survive, but there are millions of people out there who are facing financial distress… and a whole lot of them are in the same limbo…and for them it’s serious.

Even before the coronavirus hit, for anything other than a simple problem, it took an hour or more to reach a real person. I know. Last year, the IRS lost a check I sent them for an amended return [because you can’t file amended returns electronically, nor pay them electronically]. I knew the USPS didn’t lose the check because the Treasury cashed it, but it took three months for them to acknowledge that they found it [and I spent HOURS on hold waiting to talk to a real person].

Computers, automated answering systems, and incompetence can combine to create even more frustration. My wife didn’t get a bill on schedule from a financial institution for her credit card and wanted to know what she owed. So she called the institution last week. Even with her credit card number, Social Security number, address, and email, they wouldn’t tell her unless she could tell them what her last purchase had been. She had several small purchases recently, but she couldn’t find the receipts or give them exact numbers. Without that exactitude, they wouldn’t reveal her balance. She could, of course, go online and set up access to her account, something that she’s been reluctant to do, and which would just create another system with another password. They did agree to send another copy of the bill to the email on file and by regular mail. So far, she’s seen neither.

Then there were the pastries we ordered. Somehow the vendor’s system decided to send them to our daughter, because that was where the last order went. When we discovered that – three minutes after we got a confirmation email – we called the vendor… and ended up on hold. Twenty minutes later, someone answered. We corrected the shipping address. The person on the other end assured us everything was taken care of. Four days later, the pastries ended up at our daughter’s house. I’m sure she and her family will enjoy them.

3 thoughts on “Automated Frustration”

  1. JerryChops says:

    I too have been waiting for my tax return to be processed (submitted 2/13). And because the IRS has acknowledged receipt of my filing I cannot get the stimulus check until it has been processed.

    I am a Tooling Engineer, and am very fortunate that the customer I service has DOD contracts, elsewise I would currently be relying on my parents for rent assistance.

    But as you have mentioned, I have no way to get any answers on why my return is taking so long, or when it may be processed.

  2. R. Hamilton says:

    And what isn’t automated is (or was) outsourced to places where English is not a first language, but simply a widely used second language, but more significantly, where labor costs are low; often with greatly reduced mutual intelligibility.

    But even domestic help desks with an actual human have issues; those on such a desk can perhaps do very limited triage for the easy cases, or those they can handle themselves; but a service ticket that needs to go to anyone else is likely to get bounced around a bit before it gets to the right office or person.

    Automated or human, cost considerations usually hurt service, except perhaps in small businesses. If you value service, you will usually end up paying more for it.

  3. Daze says:

    When we last moved, I had 17 interactions in one day with Telstra, the Australian telco. each time, I had to get past the same tech support automated preamble, and any attempt to short-circuit its list of questions irrelevant to my problem – all at the “have you tried turning the modem off and turning on again” level, with a voice recognition system that couldn’t reliably tell ‘yes’ from ‘no’. Each of the people I then spoke to said that they’d fix the problem, and call back if our broadband wasn’t working in the next half-hour.

    The 17th person told me that all of the previous 16 were wrong, because an important step had been missed out in processing our order, and there was no chance of it working in less than three days. He also said that he was leaving next week, because “I’m so fed up with having to deal with clearing up after other people who have no idea what they’re talkimg about”.

    The good news is, at least I got through to an incompetent and misinformed person relatively quickly each time!

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